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Decorative Arts

As objects for daily use, works of decorative art allow a close insight into cultures of the past. Among its holdings, the National Gallery has an extensive collection of European furniture, tapestries, and ceramics from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as well as medieval church vessels. In addition, the museum possesses a fine selection of eighteenth- century French furniture and a large group of Chinese porcelains, primarily from the Qing Dynasty of the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Most of these objects were gifts of the Widener family of Philadelphia.

The medieval examples are primarily ecclesiastical objects, their beauty intended to lend honor and solemnity to religious rituals. A Limoges reliquary chasse, richly enameled in blues and greens, originally held the relics of a holy site or saint. The masterpiece of the Gallery's collection of medieval art is an ancient sardonyx chalice for which the twelfth-century Abbot Suger of Saint Denis provided a jeweled silver-gilt setting.

The tapestry hall is dominated by a large fifteenth-century stone fireplace and includes French and Italian furniture. Tapestry weaving was held in high esteem in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. By the fifteenth century the leading tapestry production center in Europe was Brussels, where most of the Gallery's pieces were woven. Major court painters supplied full- scale designs, called cartoons, to the weavers' workshops, where several craftsmen collaborated on most productions, ranging from the skilled masters who wove the faces through specialists in architecture, foliage, or border patterns.

The production of tin-glazed earthenware, known as maiolica, constituted a lively industry in Renaissance Italy. Retaining the full freshness of their original colors, maiolica plates and bowls show the remarkable talents of the artists who painted them. Often their designs reflect the influence of paintings and prints by famous masters.

A fine collection of eighteenth-century French furniture is installed in a suite of rooms adorned with carved oak wall paneling, its curving forms and foliate patterns reflecting the rococo taste of Louis XV's Paris. Much of the furniture, whether of rococo or neoclassical style, is signed by court cabinetmakers. A lady's delicate writing table by Jean-Henri Riesener is listed as part of the 1784 royal inventories of the Tuileries Palace, in the queen's apartment where Marie Antoinette was imprisoned after the French Revolution.

In-Depth Studies

Art Noveau, 1890–1914

Selected Online Tours

Chinese Porcelains
French Renaissance Ceramics
Italian Cabinet Galleries
Italian Renaissance Ceramics
Medieval Metalwork and Enamels
Neoclassical Decorative Arts of the Late 1700s
Production of French Decorative Arts in the 1700s
Rococo Decorative Arts of the Mid-1700s

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